Fostering Empathy for the Holiday Season

I have been thinking a lot about empathy. In the therapeutic community empathy is a tool that counselors use to build rapport with their clients and to establish trust within the therapeutic relationship. In counseling we often talk about building an “empathic connection” with our clients. In a sense, creating an empathic connection is like building a bubble of safety between two people. Within this bubble the therapist closely connects to the client’s experience. The therapist holds this sense of curiosity in wanting to really know and understand their client’s internal world.

Hakomi Body Centered Psychotherapy uses a technique called “contact statements” in therapeutic sessions. Contacted Statements are basically a way to verbalize empathic connection. The therapist uses these statements to connect deeply with the present experience of her client. The therapist sits in a mindful state and tracks many different levels of the client including emotion, body movements, energy, as well as the content of the story being told. These things are noted by the therapist and then named using a “contact statement.” The therapist might notice a tear welling up in the client and say “there’s some sadness here, huh?” To have someone be so mindful and connected to notice the internal shift in someone else feels incredibly nourishing. In addition, it can be a profound and sacred experience to sit with another in their internal experience.

Having empathy for another requires humility. In a therapeutic environment it can be easy. It is like getting to work and turning on the lights or heading to your desk to switch on your computer. Empathy is a necessary ingredient for effective therapeutic treatment because it sets the stage. Each session is an opportunity for the therapist to set aside her ego and her needs to sit with the client while she explores her internal world. Humility is required because empathic connection requires a softness of being. The therapist needs to be embodied, in touch with her own emotional experience, present, and on board with her client. Although the therapist remains in touch with her own experience, she is required to set aside any agenda to track and “be with” the experience of her client.

My question lately has been, “what is the difference between empathy and sympathy?” From a therapeutic context it is easy to define. Sympathy is feeling compassion for another as he is going through a difficult time. Sympathy is easy. Empathy is more challenging because it is about connecting to another while he is internally focused. Empathy is a skill. In day to day relationships and interactions it requires us to show up completely in our interactions with other people.

How do we foster empathic connections in all of our relationships? Is this something that we can take out of the therapy room to deepen our intimate connections? Why is it so much harder out in the world? Why is it so hard to put down our own “issues” and “busy-ness” to really sit with our loved ones to listen to and learn about their internal world? Why is it so difficult to share these things with others?

I believe that this is what true intimacy is all about. It is taking the time to be mindful of our internal experience and to make space for another’s internal experience. Empathy provides a space to connect on a deep and rich level. In a sense, it can provide the space for a shared “peak experience.” Mindful empathic connection can feel like a spiritual experience and it is unforgettable. It feels like someone is reaching inside of you to touch your heart. I wonder why we don’t teach this to our children in schools.

I have a dare for you this holiday season. At your next family gathering or holiday party, bring with you a sense of mindfulness and curiosity when you sit down to talk with someone. Notice the shifts in his or her energy or emotional state and make a “contact statement.”  Say, “Your energy just lifted as you said that” or “your tone of voice just got soft.” Just notice if this shifts your interaction. Notice if this quality of being with someone deepens the experience of being with them.  It takes practice and courage but I promise it will be worth it.

Kurtz, Ron (1991) Body-Centered Psychotherapy: The Hakomi Method: The Integrated Use of Mindfulness, Nonviolence and the Body. Mendocino, CA: LifeRhythm